The 11

The 11-inch MacBook Air comes with a 1366 x 768 display (16:9) measuring 11.6-inches along the diagonal. Ports and features are near identical to last year's model. Up top there's a 640 x 480 camera. Along each side is a USB 2.0 port. Mag Safe and headphone jack are on the left, while Thunderbolt is on the right. There's a single fan inside the chassis that vents between the keyboard and the display hinge.

The 11 is still an amazing form factor. It's painless to carry around and you end up with a tablet sized device that makes no functional sacrifices. To make things even better, now you get a full blown Sandy Bridge CPU inside the ultra slim chassis.

There are really only two things that the 11-inch MacBook Air lacks. For starters, the lack of an integrated SD card reader means anyone looking to do photo work on the go will either need an Eye-Fi or an external USB card reader. Neither is too much of a pain however an integrated reader would be much appreciated.

The second issue with the 11 is its screen size/resolution. At 1366 x 768 you get great pixel pitch on the 11-inch 16:9 screen but there's just not a lot of vertical resolution on the display. The 13-inch model gives you only 5% more horizontal resolution but 17% more vertical, and that's noticeable.

Lion does alleviate some of this problem thanks to its full screen mode. Viewing Mail or Safari in full screen is almost necessary on the 11. Thanks to the 16:9 ratio of the panel, watching movies on the 11 is nearly equivalent to watching them on the 13-inch Air.

The base $999 configuration only comes with 2GB of DDR3 and a 64GB SSD. The latter is excusable if you just don't do much with your system (and technically it's something you can upgrade down the line if you'd like) but the former is a major problem. Memory on the MacBook Air is soldered directly onto the motherboard. Not having to build in a socket helps keep the z-height of the system down to a minimum, but it also severely limits flexibility. For most users interested in a dual-core machine under OS X I'd say that 4GB is probably good enough. While I'd prefer the option of upgrading to 8GB, I think 4GB is livable; 2GB is not. If you're considering the entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air I'd strongly recommend at least upgrading the memory to 4GB. The only exception is if you're just going to spend your time doing very basic tasks on the machine and plan on upgrading again in a year or two. If that's the case save your money and enjoy a 4GB version with Ivy Bridge next year. For everyone else, make sure you get the memory upgrade.

The 13

While the 11 is almost tablet-like, the 13-inch MacBook Air still looks and feels like a normal notebook. A really thin, really light notebook. You get a 1440 x 900 (16:10) display that measures 13.3-inches along the diagonal. The port layout is identical to the 11 although you get an integrated SD card reader along the right of the machine.


From top to bottom: 11-inch MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Air, 15-inch MacBook Pro

The 13 is really a pleasure to use, despite feeling a lot like a traditional notebook. The biggest difference for me between it and the 11 is the height of the display. Seated on a couch with the notebook in my lap the 13 doesn't force me to look down as much to see the screen. I still have to tilt my head down a bit, just not as much as with the 11.

The 13-inch screen maintains a relatively high pixel density, just shy of the 128 pixels per inch you get from the 15-inch MacBook Pro with the upgraded 1680 x 1050 display. I find the 13 is a bit easier to look at than the 11 with its 135 PPI display, but that's a personal preference. Apple really needs to increase the resolution of its 13-inch MacBook Pro which is a paltry 1280 x 800.


13-inch MacBook Air (left) vs. 11-inch MacBook Air (right)

The 13's base configuration is actually really good. You get 4GB of memory (neither Air supports more than 4GB of RAM) and a 1.7GHz Core i5. The 1.7GHz part here is a bit more interesting than the 1.6GHz chip in the 11 because it supports much higher max turbo frequencies (2.4/2.7GHz vs. 2.0/2.4GHz). If you don't need more than 128GB of internal storage, my recommendation would be to go for the base 13 at $1299.

A New Thunderbolt Implementation It's Back: The Backlit Keyboard
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  • name99 - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    "
    The WLAN solution in the Air is capable of up to two simultaneous spatial streams, topping out at 270Mbps.
    In practice this results in peak performance over 802.11n at around 128.8Mbps.
    "

    This is a horribly misleading way of stating the issue. It implies that Apple or the chipset or something are somehow defective, in only delivering 50% of the available performance.
    The ACTUAL problem is the 802.11 MAC & protocol, which wastes about 50% of the available bandwidth doing god knows what. The packets that go out, go out at of order 270Mbps, but 50% of the time packets are not going out.

    This would be a good topic for a future AnandTech article --- just what the hell is the 802.11 MAC doing that wastes so much airtime?
    A useful issue to discuss in the same article is the following:
    I read once that there was an advanced option in the 802.11n MAC that reduced this wasted time to only (hah!) about 25%, but I have never seen details on this (and I have looked). Is it real? If it is real, does anyone support it?
    Reply
  • ninjaquick - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    The relevance of SSDs is really only synthetics and low ram high cache situations. I do like seeing these get beat out squarely by an i3 in pretty much everything else in the win7 tests. Reply
  • bji - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    How do you draw that conclusion about SSDs? Reply
  • KPOM - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    They only get beaten out by the i3 in the 3D tests, which are driven by the GPU, so it's more fair to say that the HD 3000 gets beaten out by a discrete graphics adapter, which is no surprise. The Airs handily beat out the i3 in the CPU-intensive benchmarks.

    I've used an SSD since November 2008 and won't go back. I still need to use a HDD-equipped machine at the office, and I can't stand how long it takes to restart, shut down, or do anything disk intensive. The SSD made the Core 2 Duo-equipped MacBook Air tolerable in a world of i3s, i5s, and i7s. The Sandy Bridge-equipped MacBook Air with SSD makes it that much better.
    Reply
  • Baron_Fel - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    When are you guys going to review the new Vaio Z? I want to know if that external GPU is worth anything. Reply
  • TwoStreetCats - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    I'm a very happy owner of the 2010 11" version and have to say that the form factor was the primary draw for me as I travel quite a bit. It fits quite nicely in the hydration pocket of my backpack and I hardly know that I have it with me.

    The only thing that is occasionally frustrating is the vertical resolution as the article mentions.

    However, I use Mac Screen Rotate to rotate the screen and touchpad for portrait viewing when browsing or viewing pdf's and this problem is solved. If size and weight are serious factors for you, I highly recommend trying this out with the 11" before you decide that you need the 13".

    www.macscreenrotate.com
    Reply
  • bji - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    If the TDP of the processor + graphics is 17W, why does the Macbook Air even need a fan?

    My Panasonic Y2, which I still use because I can't find a laptop I like better (just sold a Sager NP5160 that I only owned for 2 months because I couldn't stand the fan noise or the horrible keyboard), has a 22 W max TDP on just the Pentium M 1.4 Ghz processor. Probably the crummy Intel integrated graphics doesn't add more than a few watts but together they must be at least 25 W.

    And yet, the Macbook Air, with a 17 W processor + graphics combined, has a fan. There is plenty of aluminum in the body of the Macbook Air to act as a heatsink, why does Apple even need to put a fan in there? If the Y2 can go fanless, surely the Air can.
    Reply
  • bji - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    OK, turns out the Pentium M in my Panasonic Y2 is the 10 watt Pentium M 738, not the 22 watt Banias Pentium M.

    The Intel 855 GME chipset is listed at 3.2 W.

    Is it really the case that 10 W can be fanless but 17 W cannot?
    Reply
  • tipoo - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Might be possible in 17w, but it already gets pretty hot WITH a fan. Reply
  • hellknight - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    I couldn't believe that Intel included AES instruction set in such low voltage chips. Even the base model has those.. This is something very great.. It would be great for all Truecrypt users.. Reply

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